It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Russ Feingold’s reputation as a maverick and clever campaign ads were supposed to insulate him from the national wave that swept out dozens of his Democratic colleagues.
But after 18 years in office, the shine had worn off the Wisconsin Democrat’s independent image, Feingold’s ads this year were remarkably average, and a political neophyte from Oshkosh unseated the incumbent in a state where Republicans haven’t won a Senate race in almost a quarter-century.
In 1992, Feingold rode to Washington with a series of offbeat television ads that helped him cut through the clutter of a Democratic primary and knock off Sen. Bob Kasten (R) in the general election.
This year, it was Republican Ron Johnson’s ads that received recognition for their creativity, putting Feingold’s reputation to the test and ultimately defeating the Democrat by 5 points in a race that was decided well before Election Day.
The Senator was clearly working against a wave of frustrated voters at the state and national levels, but the biggest question is how Feingold’s veteran campaign team was unable recapture his political magic.
The Redefinition of Russ
“As long as he held on to his independent moniker, he was pretty much unbeatable,” Johnson’s pollster, Wes Anderson, told Roll Call. “If we don’t explore that, we don’t win.”
Through early focus groups, the Johnson campaign believed there was a crack in Feingold’s independent armor. It “zoned in” on two key elements of Feingold’s strength: “fiscally responsible and independent maverick.” It tried to peel away the independent label and claim it for Johnson.
“We zoned in on those two things and had the ammunition from the last two years with Obama,” said Johnson’s media consultant, Curt Anderson, Wes Anderson’s brother, who worked at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1992 when Feingold defeated Kasten.
Curt Anderson said the Johnson team believed Feingold’s independence was based on some “inconsequential votes.”
Feingold told voters on the campaign trail he’d opposed bank bailouts under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He may be best known as the single dissenting vote against the USA PATRIOT Act.
But in an election in which voters were most concerned about the economy, Republicans focused on Feingold’s votes for the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, health care reform and Obama’s budget.
Democrats admit that instead of rewriting history and distorting Feingold’s record, Republicans were able to focus on what they believe he is now. By the end of the race, Feingold’s greatest strength was sapped.
Some Democrats in the state said the Senator’s national reputation — and his brief flirtation with a 2008 presidential bid — may have exceeded his connection to the Badger State.
“He thought visiting 72 counties every two years would be enough to insulate him from the environment,” a Democratic source said.
In general, multiple Democratic observers in the state said, Feingold overestimated himself and underestimated Johnson.
“Quite frankly, Russ was a little arrogant,” a second Badger State Democrat said.
Brandon Scholz, a former Kasten aide who is now president of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, said in an interview that Feingold ran “some damn good ads” in 1992. “But this year, his campaign was so uncharacteristically negative,” Scholz said.
Feingold’s campaign team has remained largely intact since that first race, but according to one of its key members, this year wasn’t the same.
“The decision-making process was far different,” Feingold’s longtime media consultant, Steve Eichenbaum, told Roll Call in a recent interview. Contrary to the past three races, the Milwaukee-based media consultant found himself taking orders rather than having creative input.
“They weren’t our ideas,” Eichenbaum explained about the ads that made the airwaves. “We were more of a production company.”
So who was the director?
“Russ Feingold runs Feingold’s campaigns,” according to one Democratic insider. “He micromanages his races in a maddening way.”
Until now, it hadn’t been much of a problem.
“Russ Feingold has always been a good judge. His instincts were infallible up to this point,” Eichenbaum said. “Russ just believed he couldn’t do what he did in the past and have it work.”
Feingold declined to be interviewed for this report.
Even though Eichenbaum disagreed with the direction of the campaign, he still has “nothing but the highest respect” for Feingold, and he’s not sure that his discarded ideas would have changed the outcome.
Feingold’s first ad in 1992 was a home movie where he gave viewers a tour of his house, and as he opened the hall closet he dead-panned: “Look. No skeletons.” This year, the Senator’s first television spot was much more serious as he compared himself to other longtime Wisconsin Senators through a pictorial.
Another ad featured Feingold in a suit and tie listening in a boardroom, a stark contrast to the traditionally jacketless Democrat featured in his early campaigns.
The 1992 home tour ad featured Feingold showing campaign promises on his own garage. This year, he attempted to reprise that theme in front of his house, but even that attempt at re-creating the spark wasn’t enough to dramatically alter the race. Some Republicans thought the Democrat hit a soft spot when he attacked Johnson for describing trade deals as “creative destruction,” but Feingold ran the spot for only 10 days instead of using the issue to hammer his rival repeatedly.
“We felt like we had to add one or two issues to the mix,” said Feingold pollster Paul Maslin, a Madison resident and new member of the team this cycle. “Trade was great, but that alone wasn’t going to be enough.”
“I don’t even consider it our stuff,” said Eichenbaum, who is disappointed and tired of answering questions about why this year’s ads were so different than in the past. “Had we won with this stuff, I wouldn’t have taken credit for it.”
The problem for Feingold was that while few people said the Senator ran a good campaign, his opponent ran a great one.
The plastics manufacturer who had never run for office surprised a depressed Republican field by jumping into the race days before the late May GOP convention.
For much of the cycle, Tommy Thompson was thought to be the GOP’s best challenger against Feingold. In retrospect, the former governor would have been an easier target for Democrats because he had his own record and couldn’t credibly attack Feingold as a career politician.
Johnson, on the other hand, had hardly been involved in politics before this year. His nonpolitical background gave his opponents less to attack, and his late entry gave them less time to do it.
“Feingold is one tough customer,” said Johnson media consultant Curt Anderson of OnMessage Inc. “Why give him more time to cut you to pieces?”
If it weren’t for the May convention, Johnson probably would have waited even longer. But once he got in, the race was on to define the unknown commodity.
“If Ron didn’t go out and define himself, then someone else was going to tell the story,” Anderson said.
Maslin said the Feingold campaign believed it had one shot during the summer to go after Johnson, “but it would have been a big gamble and taken a lot of money.”
While Democrats held most of their fire until the fall, Johnson used his checkbook — spending at least $8 million of his own money — to define himself and establish a level of credibility that helped him withstand Feingold attacks later in the race.
“There was nothing special about Johnson. What made him special was the fact that he didn’t carry broad negatives,” one Democratic strategist said. “A lot of it was keeping his nose clean.”
But when Johnson did make a potential mistake, misstep or misstatement, his campaign moved quickly.
“I’m not a slick politician, and I made a mistake,” Johnson said in a radio ad cut five hours after Feingold attacked his support for the Second Amendment following an unfortunate comment about licensing guns. “It wasn’t the first time, and it probably won’t be the last.”
Republicans were concerned that Democrats would go after Johnson for saying that Washington treated Social Security like a Ponzi scheme. So the Johnson campaign took a risk and brought up the third-rail issue by airing “Money Spent” in early September to better explain his statement. By the time Feingold aired his “Off the Table” ad — in which he swept old toys off a table onto the floor — a month later, Social Security wasn’t a factor because Johnson’s comments were nothing new and the ad was confusing.
What’s most remarkable about the Johnson campaign is that no one can seem to agree which ad was the Republican’s best.
“Apple Pie” and “Family” have received some recognition because the bio spots mocked typical campaign ads for their over-the-top wholesomeness. But “57” may go down as Johnson’s signature ad of the cycle.
The spot featured Johnson and a white board pointing out the number of lawyers in the Senate (57) compared with the number of manufacturers (zero) and accountants (one). Feingold is a lawyer; Johnson is both a manufacturer and an accountant.
“It simplified the race for a lot of people,” according to Mark Graul, a former adviser to then-Rep. Mark Green (R).
The candidates spent well over $10 million each in what will go down as the most expensive Senate race in Wisconsin history, with Feingold asking the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to stay out of the race.
National Vs. Local
Not only did Feingold struggle to maintain his independent image, he struggled with independent voters.
In 2008, Obama won independents in Wisconsin 58 percent to 39 percent and won the state by more than a dozen points. This year, Feingold lost independents
56 percent to 43 percent and lost the race by 5 points.
“Johnson’s message of a career politician, big government spending, too many taxes and too much spending resonated with these independent voters,” said Madison-based lobbyist Scott Tyre, who worked for former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.).
Feingold’s struggle with independent voters mirrored Democratic problems nationwide, and a closer look at this year’s elections in Wisconsin begs the question of whether this race had anything to do with the Senator.
Not only did Feingold lose re-election, but Republicans captured the governorship for the first time in eight years and took over both chambers of the Legislature in a state where residents can vote a straight party ticket, a process allowed in fewer than 20 states.
A county-by-county analysis revealed that even though Johnson and GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Walker had very different résumés and ran distinct campaigns, their percentages of the vote were nearly the same. The two Republicans ran within 2 points of each other in 67 counties and only 3 points apart in the remaining five.
In his first television ad, Feingold recalled some of Wisconsin’s past Senatorial stalwarts, including Gaylord Nelson (D). After three terms in the Senate, Nelson was unseated by then-Rep. Kasten in the Republican wave of 1980. Feingold’s time in the Senate came to a similar close.
There was clearly an electoral wave that took over the country and the state, but Johnson was the right candidate at the right time and ran a great campaign. He took a risk by challenging Feingold’s strength, and it paid off.
One Democratic strategist summed it up, calling Feingold “an icon” and adding: “Fiscally conservative. Went against the grain. None of these qualities seemed to connect with voters. What he was was an incumbent.”